The scene is Shanghai, or Busby Berkeley’s dream of it: a Chinese city of the 1930s, teeming on the outskirts with rickety tenement compounds, bustling in its business district with clanging streetcars and plump, humpbacked autos, groaning everywhere under the oppression of the Axe Gang, a chorus of
criminals who dance like Fred Astaire and dress like London bankers, except for the hatchets on their belts. As the gangsters jitter and jive in their Art Deco casino–while a docile police chief thumbs through his cash–a montage of well-choreographed mayhem convulses the city. I mean woman-shotgunned-in-the-face, blasted-backward-through-the-air-type mayhem.
“People live in peace,” a title explains, “only in the poorest districts, which have nothing to interest the Axe Gang.” The camera glides, with 1930s facility, into Pig Sty Alley: four teetering stories of low-ceilinged shops and cramped residences, gathered like a broken-sided box around a courtyard damp with laundry.
Here, a different oppression reigns. The landlord, a would-be lounge lizard, slinks about putting the touch on his tenants, for money if they’re men, for the sake of the touch if they’re not. Meanwhile his robust wife, her hair permanently rolled up in curlers and a cigarette forever dangling from her lip, reasserts discipline when needed by hurling the landlord out of a second-story window, followed by a skull-denting flowerpot.
Only a loser of the lowest sort would be so stupid as to seek his fortune in Pig Sty Alley. Enter Sing (Stephen Chow): a scrawny fast-talker dressed in clothes assembled from other people’s wash lines. He struts into the courtyard pretending to be an Axe Gang member and soon enough, by bluff and swagger, calls down the vengeance of the real gang on Pig Sty Alley. It’s Sing’s first self-inflicted disaster in Kung Fu Hustle.
Thinking of the many more to come–the punctured boasts, the ballooning body parts, the calamities that spark one another like a chain of firecrackers–the synopsizer falls silent. To tell more of the story of Kung Fu Hustle is to risk telling all, from the Zither of Doom to the flaming Buddhist Palm, from the flying attack in Toad Style to the explosive Lion’s Roar, not excepting the tale of the mute girl with the broken lollipop and the heartache of her failed defender, a poor boy pledged to “uphold world peace and fight evil” with instructions from a fifty-cent pamphlet. A mere recital of the plot points would make an entertainment for a winter’s night; but since it’s spring as I write, let’s simply say that Kung Fu Hustle gives you something to watch, as today’s American pop movies seldom do.
Serving not only as star of the film but as its director, producer and co-writer, the immensely popular Chow (Shaolin Soccer) shot Kung Fu Hustle on elaborately beautiful sets constructed in and around Shanghai, with a technical crew drawn from the best of Hong Kong’s film industry. The cinematographer was the veteran Poon Hang Sang (Peking Opera Blues; A Chinese Ghost Story), any one of whose crane shots or dolly excursions would be the glory of a Scorsese picture. The production designer was Oliver Wong–a frequent collaborator with Jackie Chan–and the sound engineer was Leung Chi Tat, who has amassed a decade’s worth of credits with Wong Kar-Wai. This accumulation of expertise became even more extravagant with the action choreography, for which Chow called on not one but two masters, Yuen Wo Ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Kill Bill) and Sammo Hung (A Touch of Zen; Wheels on Meals).
As this lavish display of pan-Chinese talent unfolds, you get the impression that you’re watching a showcase production, like one of those old MGM revues featuring two dozen of the studio’s biggest stars–the difference being that Chow has nothing to promote, other than his joy at commanding such riches. He conducts himself in Kung Fu Hustle less like a box-office champion than a fan who is especially rapt with admiration for the different generations of performers he has brought together. Deep students of Asian trash cinema will have the pleasure of recognizing them all. More ignorant viewers (including me) will fail to spot them, and so will have the different but equal pleasure of being surprised when a character’s disguise falls away to reveal his or her astonishing powers.
I have been told that this theme of disguise goes far back in Chinese culture. For centuries, kung fu masters have figured in folklore and literature as hidden defenders of the poor, often wandering alone, in humble circumstances, to fight against the arrogance of power and the corruptions of officialdom. We recently saw an autumnal version of this myth in Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers. Chow, by contrast, looks at kung fu legend with a child’s eyes. He believes in the ideals (in a sapheaded, sentimental way) and at the same time sees them as material for a Looney Tune: legs that spin like the Road Runner’s, torsos that splat like Wile E. Coyote’s. Until close to the end, the comic mood predominates. Then Chow drops his own shabby disguise to emerge as a shining hero, and the sky opens for him, the evil fall prostrate (or are jammed headfirst into the roof beams), the poor are vindicated and time runs backward, so that innocence may at last be recaptured. Somehow, this climax comes off as sincere–enormously silly, of course, but heartfelt–with Chow himself emerging less as a saint than as a guy who has finally gotten cleaned up and learned the value of hard work.
An unstable yet miraculously coherent mixture of stylized fighting, grotesque comedy, romantic wish fulfillment, deluxe production values and rhetorical appeals to working-class solidarity, Kung Fu Hustle may not be the most profound movie you’ll see this year but is certainly the only one of its kind. It takes its peculiar place in a now venerable line of Asian films that have reminded us of the simple, kinetic joys that American movies have lost. And although you might suspect Chow of being a little too fond of cinematic artifice, I’m glad to say there’s not a whiff of homage when he takes a line here from Spider-Man, a line there from The Matrix and a whole special-effects sequence from The Shining. Chow is working in a tradition that is fully alive, so these are out-and-out thefts.
If you insist on watching something serious, though, I draw your attention to Look at Me (Comme une image), a satirical drama from France about careerism, classical music and the tyranny of the size-six dress.
Directed by Agnès Jaoui from a script she wrote with her longtime collaborator, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Look at Me focuses on women in two troubled, interlocking families. Lolita (Marilou Berry) is the short, plump, adult daughter of Etienne (Bacri), a famous author and publisher whose temper is symbolized by the blood-red shirts he likes to wear. Now married to his second wife, a picture-perfect blonde who is no older than Lolita, Etienne takes notice of his daughter only for the sake of the intermittent put-down, addressed with casual brutality to her face, her weight, her clothes and her aspirations for a career as a singer.
Sylvia (Jaoui) is Lolita’s vocal coach, and she, too, dismisses the young woman, until she discovers her connection to the much-admired and powerful Etienne. Then, suddenly, Sylvia becomes friendly and helpful–because she wants to penetrate Etienne’s circle and also because her husband, Pierre (Laurent Grévill), a struggling novelist, will benefit from the association. Soon, Sylvia and Pierre are off for a weekend at Etienne’s country house, where the mixture of types and classes brings to mind the films of Renoir, in ways that are not always flattering to Jaoui.
As a writer and director, she must struggle with a terrible burden: her own acting. One of the worst muggers to hit the screen since Red Skelton, Jaoui not only reduces her characterizations to a sequence of masklike contortions but often performs these facial posturings on cue, without bothering to listen to the other actor’s line. In the past she has rescued herself, principally by her association with Bacri (who is incapable of a false gesture), but now she adds to this borrowed strength the growing nuance of her writing and direction. The evidence is her creation, with Berry, of Lolita: a young woman whose unpleasantness derives partly from her reaction to her father’s outrages and partly from emulation of them. She, too, can turn into an angry, self-absorbed bully. She’s just not as good at it as Etienne–and she also has a streak of kindness and hopefulness that redeems her for the audience.
The first time I saw Look at Me, at the opening of the 2004 New York Film Festival, I thought it was a craftsmanlike entertainment, made to open our eyes to social dynamics that are already in full view. A recent second viewing convinced me that there’s much more. This is an expansive film, and a humane one, which only gradually discloses its depth and ambition. If you concentrate on Jaoui’s voice, rather than her face, you may even discover that it’s warm.
Screening schedule: Through April 12, the Pioneer Theater on Manhattan’s Lower East Side is presenting “Homeland Insecurity,” a series of recent documentaries made with the support of the New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and Television. Though no longer exactly “new” (it has been operating since 1993), this quasi-governmental foundation remains almost scandalously independent, helping to produce pictures of Israeli society that are of no use to either the Ministry of Tourism or the UJA-Federation fundraisers. Most of the works in the series are currently unknown to me, but experience persuades me that they’ll be an uneven lot: personal, gritty, humorous, angry, sometimes amateurish, sometimes devastating. Take a risk. For information: (212) 591-0434, or www.twoboots.com/pioneer/monthly_programs/2005-04.htm.
Looking instead for the Big Picture? Visit the Museum of Modern Art for its midcareer retrospective of writer, actor, director, singer-songwriter and sort-of-documentarian Christopher Guest. On view April 8 to 17, the series includes all the films (from This Is Spinal Tap through A Mighty Wind), as well as television work dating back to the 1970s. Bluff, bully or buy your way into the museum on April 9, and you can hear Guest perform a live acoustic set with regular co-conspirators Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, then engage in a discussion (unscripted, of course) with Parker Posey and Bob Balaban. For information: (212) 708-9400, or www.moma.org.
As for you Nation readers in Atlanta, Chicago, Austin and Los Angeles who are tired of the New York bias of this column: Hop on a plane for Berkeley, California, where the Pacific Film Archive is presenting a mini-retrospective of the documentaries of Marina Goldovskaya, from April 7 to 17. Titled A Woman With a Movie Camera, the series focuses on her extraordinary work from the perestroika period and beyond, including her epoch-making investigation into the history of the gulag, the 1988 Solovky Power. Goldovskaya will be an artist-in-residence at the PFA during the series and will present a lecture on April 14, in conjunction with the screening of her 1992 film The Shattered Mirror: A Diary of a Turbulent Time. For information: (510) 642-0808, or www.bampfa.berkeley.edu.